By Steve Steinberg
The most common complaint that I hear from prospective clients is this: "I work out three times a week, but my body never changes."
When I ask them what they do in the gym, I almost always know what I'm going to hear. They generally do two or three circuits of machine-based strength training and then 30 minutes on a treadmill or elliptical machine. And they've been doing this same workout three times a week... since the Dawn of Man.
"Your body has gotten bored at that point," says Steve Zim, author of three best-selling fitness books and owner of ATighterU in Culver City, California. "It's like reading a book. How many times can you read the same book before you find yourself just mindlessly flipping the pages? If you're doing the same workout again and again, your body is just flipping the pages."
It isn't all that hard to tweak your workout a bit to rekindle the challenge and get your body responding and changing. Heck, you're already working long and hard, but if you work out smarter, you can make real gains that you'll see and feel both in the gym and out.
Good: Lose The Machines
Machines are a great way to isolate muscle groups, but to make the most of your workout, you want to involve as many body parts as you can per exercise. The more muscles that are involved, the more calories you're burning -- and the more muscle you're building.
Look at a typical back exercise. Using the seated row machine, you're sitting down and being held in place by a chest pad. You're working the muscles of the back, shoulders and biceps, but your legs, core and everything else are on vacation. Compare that to a bent-over dumbbell row. Now, in addition to your back, shoulders and biceps, other muscles are getting strong and burning calories while they stabilize your body during the movement. It's strengthening these stabilizers -- and not just isolating and strengthening the muscles of the back -- that'll keep you injury-free when you actually have to do some real-life heavy lifting.
Better: Do Full-Body Movements
A lot of folks look at their gym visits as either an "upper-body day" or a "lower-body day." (Or, for the more micromanaging type, "chest day," "back day" or "legs day.") The problem is that very few human movements outside the gym involve single muscle groups. And if you play any sort of sport... or ski... or spelunk, and aren't teaching your body parts how to play with each other, you're simply not going to perform at an optimal level.
From a trainer's viewpoint, if you're only doing either upper-body or lower-body, you're also missing out on some insanely cool, challenging and beneficial exercises. Try doing lunges with a light weight in each hand. When you step forward with your right leg into a lunge, find your balance, then raise your right arm out to the side until it's parallel to the floor. Lower it, find your balance again, and then step back up to a standing position. Alternate left-sided lunges and raises with right-sided lunges and raises. It's a combination legs-and-shoulders strengthening movement that also works your core, coordination and balance. Do at least one full-body workout per week.
Best: Combine Strength Training And Cardio
Most people spend about 30 minutes in the weight room and another 30 minutes on a piece of cardio equipment. To make the most of your time at the gym and to keep your body firing on all cylinders, alternate strength-training exercises with short (but intense) bouts of cardio, with as little rest as possible in between. "You'll keep your heart rate up the entire time and be able to get an amazing workout in about half the time it usually takes," says Zim.
This combination will also keep your body warm and loose throughout your entire workout, and that's one of the keys to avoiding injury. "Once you get injured, you're not working out," says Zim. "You're done. And your New Year's resolution is over."
Start by alternating 30 seconds of strength training (either with weights or by simply doing bodyweight movements) and one minute of cardio (cardio machine, jump rope, jumping jacks or shadow boxing). See if you can keep it up for 30 minutes. Eventually, work your way up to doing one minute of strength training and two minutes of hard cardio.